A legend is born at the best of times. From the multi award-winning team behind the mind blowing original blockbuster, the secrets are finally revealed in this most anticipated prequel. What drove police superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) and crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) against one another? How did the two struggling moles Yan (Shawn Yue) and Ming (Edison Chen) begin their parallel fates. The keys lie in the hands of three: Sam's wife Mary (Carina Lau), ruthless kingpin Hau (Francis Ng), and righteous cop Luk. The infernal gates are open to the worst of times...
With the success of the first part of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, it is quite understandable that there was quite a bit of excitement surrounding the next two instalments of the story. This was muted a touch through knowing that the young Yan and Ming were going to be portrayed by Shawn Yue and Edison Chen respectively - two actors that are no where near the calibre of Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Andy Lau.
Fortunately portions of this fear were dissipated on watching the film as the young Yan and Ming are not the focus of Infernal Affairs II, it is mainly switched to Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong), Sam (Eric Tsang) and Hau (Francis Ng). Hau is a new character to the Infernal Affairs world, and after the murder of his father he becomes the head of the Ngai family, one of the most powerful triad families in Hong Kong. With his father's death, the triad word falls into turmoil with most of the big triad bosses wanting to oppose the Ngai family. However, the triad boss Sam is loyal to Hau, but behind the scenes his wife Mary (Carina Lau) also has her own agenda. Yan is forced into this mess after revelations that he is related to Hau, and he is given the choice of expulsion from the police force or going undercover and infiltrating the Ngai family (a little different to how it comes across in part I!).
In all honesty, there is quite a lot going on in this instalment, and keeping track of everything without being overwhelmed is quite a difficult task. Where the original was strong was that it had four main characters, two on the good guys and two on the bad guys, with a few minor characters worth paying attention to. Part II, as is the general rule with sequels, goes bigger. All the main characters from part I are still there, but now you have to keep track of Hau, Mary, SP Luk (Inspector Wong's boss) and a few other minor characters. At times I honestly did think that there was just too much going on, with many consecutive scenes just throwing more and more information at you. Had this been a standalone film, then it is possible that this wouldn't be such a bad thing, but while watching I was trying to piece everything together and relate it to the original... as such my brain did get lost a few times.
Knowing the way that many of the characters were going to be in 2002 in the Infernal Affairs timeline, made it very interesting to see how they were in the years 1991-1997, which is when this film takes place. I certainly never expected to have any of the characters completely pegged, but Infernal Affairs II still threw quite a number of surprises in my direction, some good but some bad, one of which stands out significantly and will be discussed later.
The first thing that caught me was seeing the darker side of Inspector Wong and his relationship with Sam. Fortunately I've seen part III prior to writing this review, so some negative opinion I had with regard to the relationship between Wong and Sam has been quashed. You see, in this film they basically get along well and come across as friends, despite knowingly being on opposite sides of the law. Surprised? I was. Part I does give the clear impression that they know each other well, but I believed that it would be due to them being essentially enemies, but not so. I'm just glad part III expands this relationship further.
Anyway, like I said, Inspector Wong has a dark side to his character. You learn that he is not always the law-abiding policeman than you expected. In his fight against the triads, he is willing to use the triads for his own deeds and dabble in highly illegal actions should that serve his purpose. This for me was one of the biggest surprises and twists in the whole story arc, mainly because I really didn't see it coming. However, counteracting this positive development there is a negative one of equal magnitude. In the relationship between Yan and Wong, there is no resemblance here to the way they are towards each other in part I (or Part III). By the end of the film, with all the revelations that take place throughout, it is clear that there is a lot of negative feeling in their relationship and certainly not the camaraderie that is portrayed in the other instalments.
Of the main characters in the trilogy, Ming largely takes a secondary role in this story, merely being in the backdrops or not involved in most scenes. However, there is short but very significant expansion of his character and his relationship with Sam. His loyalty, it becomes clear, comes through ulterior motives, and you see that even though in the future the character wants to be a good guy, there is a definite evil side to the man.
One of the highest accolades I gave Infernal Affairs was in the acting department, because it was simply excellent all round. Losing two of the big name actors for this film made it an almost impossible task to even compete to that standard, and this film proves just how impossible that task was. Eric Tsang was probably the best of all involved, in my books, being of the same standard portraying the younger and slightly more naive triad boss Sam. But the biggest disappointment had to be Anthony Wong. I don't know why, but I just didn't see the same level of acting in his portrayal of Wong as I did before. The problem I found was with consistency. In some scenes he'd give a terrific performance, like the film's opening monologue, but in others I could hardly believe it was the same guy acting, for example the scene after the explosion where he is supposed to be crying, I really didn't care for his acting there at all.
While Anthony Wong was the biggest disappointment, that is on a relative scale. I was expecting Shawn Yue to be disappointing, and alas there were no surprises there. His facial expressions just cannot compete with the Yan created by Tony Leung. In fact if my memory serves me correct, Shawn Yue didn't really have that many facial expressions on display throughout the film, it was all mainly just the sort of 'dead-pan-but-concentrating' look. Edison Chen was thankfully a more positive surprise. He only had a small role in this film, but for the most part I think he coped with it very well. Believe me, I was shocked on seeing this, but fair play to the guy, for all the stick he receives for his acting in his other films, he doesn't deserve any here.
Carina Lau has another small but significant role as Mary, Sam's wife. This is a woman with her own agenda, and at times it appears also the one with the power. Credit has to be given to Carina as her Mary comes across as a tough and independent woman, and the sort you'd expect for this character. The last of the main actors in the film is Francis Ng as Hau. Many people will wax lyrical about how good an actor Francis Ng is, and for a large part this is deserved, as he is a good actor. However, in his role as Hau I noticed something that made his acting do nothing for me really. The thing that I noticed is that, while being a good actor with the different facial expressions, eye movements etc. for his roles, it just seemed like it was the same facial expressions and eye movements for this portrayal of a head triad as he uses in every other film, regardless of whether he is playing a head triad or a sales exec... While watching I just remember thinking "I've seen him do that before..." and I'm pretty sure it was in a completely different context. Fair play to him, he as risen to the top on that acting style, but in Infernal Affairs II I just found it quite repetitive and, well, boring and not that powerful in this role.
On a technical level Infernal Affairs II has been made very well. The stylish look that was evident in part I is still here, it has been filmed beautifully and sounds amazing, but this just highlights the fact that style over content does not an excellent movie make... or some other weird saying. Part I had it all, and it looked good while having it! Part II doesn't come close to comparing. The slightly muddled and hard to follow story brings the film down a bit, and the below expectation level acting lowers it even more. Despite the revelations made in the running time, the story is simply neither as engaging nor as entertaining as before. The weakest episode in the Infernal Affairs trilogy.
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